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Punitive Damages: Should Juries Decide?


Catherine M. Sharkey


New York University School of Law


Texas Law Review, Vol. 82, December 2003

Abstract:     
How Juries Decide is a pathbreaking work of empirical scholarship based on experiments conducted with more than 8,000 jury-eligible citizens and more than 600 mock juries. Its basic premise - that cognitive flaws in human decisionmaking, especially those affecting the translation process by which moral judgments are transformed into dollar awards, lead to erratic and unprincipled punitive damages awards - has already had an important impact not only on scholarly literature but also on judicial decisionmaking in high profile suits. This Review offers a methodological, doctrinal, and institutional critique of this widely influential study, with particular emphasis on the discrepancies between the empirical data presented and the policy reforms advanced - which include, at the extreme, a call to banish the jury from punitive damages decisionmaking. The Review examines critically the authors' conclusions that jurors are intuitive retributionists and unable (or unwilling) to follow instructions based on the non-retributive optimal deterrence theory of punitive damages. More fundamentally, the Review challenges the authors' rigid separation between retributive-based punitive damages, which are linked to jurors' moral evaluations, from remedial-based compensatory damages (including pain and suffering), which are not. Although the authors fashion a seemingly narrowly tailored attack on jurors' assessments of punitive damages, in fact they raise fundamental questions about the civil jury system as a whole, questions that are in no relevant way confined to punitive damages. Conversely, to the extent that there is any non-retributive component to punitive damages, their attack upon the jury's ability to assess punitive damages might not be warranted across the board. What emerges is the distinct possibility that a system of non-retributive punitive damages might survive the authors' empirical challenges. Finally, How Juries Decide pays too little attention to institutional context and wholly overlooks potentially effective reforms within the existing jury system, such as those that take into account anchoring effects and regional differences among jurors - reforms that are clearly supported by their empirical findings.

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Date posted: October 3, 2003  

Suggested Citation

Sharkey, Catherine M., Punitive Damages: Should Juries Decide?. Texas Law Review, Vol. 82, December 2003. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=453240 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.453240

Contact Information

Catherine M. Sharkey (Contact Author)
New York University School of Law ( email )
40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
212-998-6729 (Phone)
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